Remix by Alexander Lionel — Image courtesy of NASA

The Dragon Queen of Mars

by Josh Pearce

The Legend of Her Descent:

Regan Drake’s inert body lay against the rust-orange rubble of Martian ground, her silver pressure suit glinting in the sun like a razor blade that had not yet oxidized. Behind her, the wind tugged apart the parachutes and set them adrift into the desert, then began to do the same to the landing capsule from which Regan had been ejected upon impact. Ceramic tiles and metal panels peeled away in flakes.

Far above her, and beyond the horizon where she couldn’t see, the remains of what had been her spaceship reached the terminus of its unstable orbit and flared into a cinder against the meager atmosphere. Some time after this happened, Regan’s head lifted off of the sand and she examined her surroundings. Her faceplate, miraculously unbroken, fogged up with her breath until she readjusted the mouthpiece to fit correctly. Each breath she exhaled contained moisture from her lungs, on the order of liters per hour, but the condenser on the helmet recycled water and curses back into her mouth.

“This very spot,” declared the boy in the yellow pressure suit, “is where Our Lady, the Queen of the Red Planet, descended from heaven on a cloud of fire and set foot on Mars, naked and alone.” He spread his arms dramatically, to encompass the whole hillside and the knot of pilgrims who had paid to listen to him. These, then, moved back slightly so as not to desecrate such venerate dust. Sarah rolled her eyes behind her faceplate. On a dozen other sites in and around the Divine City, local guides were making the exact same claim, striking similar poses. This was not the first time she had heard Marco’s speech.

A plastic helmet clunked into hers. It was Adam. “Naked and alone, she promptly asphyxiated to death. The end.” He had heard Marco’s prattle before, also.

Sarah snickered. “Or her blood reached its boiling point immediately and she burst like a balloon, adding to the namesake color of the Red Planet.”

“Are you going to stay out here all day?” Adam asked.

Sarah looked at the group of tourists, who were tramping over to what Marco promised was the first habitat built on the planet. As bad as the pageantry could get out here, it was even worse inside the city now, during Holy Week. The tunnels and caves were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with wide-eyed tourists as people from all the tribes of Mars came here to connect with their roots, connect with the beginning of all Martian life.

She sighed, took Adam’s hand, and went back to the city.

Regan picked through the strewn wreck of the landing capsule, looking for anything that could be used in a survival capacity, piling up cables, wires, metal panels, insulating foam to one side. She worked quickly and efficiently, and devoted all of the processing power that she could to the here and now, because the here and now is what’s going to get your ass killed, Drake, if you don’t get cracking, she told herself.

But every few minutes, those final moments from the ship would break through her focus and derail everything. The images from Earth, the violence on the flight deck as Captain Berg tried to put down terrified mutineers. She’d been the only one close enough to make it to the capsule, and while her crew screamed over the intercom, she’d launched.

She was not going to weep. She made it a mission parameter because, although she had a recycler on her mouthpiece and means of reclaiming urine or sweat, there was no way to regain the water lost through tears. She was not going to, would not allow herself, to cry until she’d stabilized the situation and had a way to rehydrate. Regan had not rocketed over 60 million kilometers through space to be killed by emotions.

As she picked through the crash, though, the hopelessness and bleakness of the planitia fell on her and she leaned against a rock. She made noises that would sound—to anyone listening in on radio—like despair, but her face remained dry. Even this she brought under shuddering control within minutes because her panting breath was wasting oxygen.

The Earth rose and the Earth set, the first day.

The Legend of the Breath of Life:

Adam and Sarah reached the wall of airlocks, undid their suit fasteners, and tumbled into the city, awash in the smells and sounds of hundreds of people who lived in habs on the dunes or in other lava tube warren cities, all gathered here on pilgrimage to the first city.

They squeezed through a narrow part of the street past the open front of a food stall. An old priest beckoned to them from a temple door, shaking an alms box. They tried to back away. “Sorry, sir, but we’re not pilgrims.”

The priest kept motioning them closer. “Do not be afraid. The luck of the Dragon Queen is available for everyone. Remember the story of how the Queen built Mars from nothing. She looked at the barren desert and breathed a sigh of frustration. The carbon dioxide of her breath mixed with the hydrogen from the moisture in her lungs and mouth to create methane. This, when mixed with her oxygen, was fuel for the Holy Fire of the Dragon.”

“I’ve heard this story,” Adam said. They had all heard the story, from the time they were infants.

“Perhaps, then, you can tell me the rest of it,” said the old man, “as an offering to the Queen during Holy Week.”

So Sarah finished the tale. “With the fire of heaven in her breast, the Royal Mother created methanol from methane and by reacting methanol with itself she created dimethyl ether. It didn’t take long for the ether, under heat and pressure from the dragon fire, to polymerize and the Queen could breathe out plastic. Every word she said came forth from her lips in perfectly formed shapes. She spoke of towers and palaces, and they drifted from her mouth like soap bubbles. They floated across the landscape, growing larger, until they fetched up against rocks and anchored themselves.

“But that’s not all she made. The Queen also spoke of trees and flowers and, and,” this was where her memory of the legend generally broke down, “elephants.”

“I don’t remember that part of the story,” Adam said. The old man laughed.

Regan Drake worked furiously through the night, mindless, mechanical digging, because if she didn’t think, she didn’t hurt. The mound of red dirt slowly grew bigger inside the solar oven she’d pieced together out of the shinier bits of her wreckage.

The sun suddenly came up with hardly a predawn lightening of the thin atmosphere. Its light hit the solar oven and began to bake the Martian dirt. The moisture, hidden deep in the soil, steamed its way out and condensed on the sides of the oven. It was a tiny amount, but it was water.

As she waited for the droplets to run together and into the collector, Regan looked at the harsh daylight and said, “This is Commander Regan Drake, formerly of NASA. Is anybody out there?” The green light of her helmet radio burned like a morning star. “I didn’t think so.”

She kept shoveling dirt into the oven.

Her wreck was rich in metals, and she stripped it of zinc, magnesium, copper, and aluminum, buried large plates of them in the ground to create earth batteries and generate enough electricity to electrolyze her water into hydrogen and oxygen. Using a nickel catalyst, Regan reacted the hydrogen with carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, made methane, sucked up the oxygen herself.

When she finally stopped, exhausted, she had fuel, water, and air. Enough, she calculated, to make a go of things. Her stomach growled, but she ignored it.

She drew short, shallow sips of oxygen while she remembered satellite images of Earth, seeing huge silver alien creatures (or perhaps they were vehicles) scuttling across the planet, mulching trees and cities and fleeing, panicking people.

The green light of Regan’s radio bothered her, so she’d switched it off, but sometimes she thought she saw people dancing out among the red rocks. There were children, and once, quite clearly, the face of Captain Berg, who had piloted the ship to Mars. Her body spoke to her with creaks and pain, but she put those aside in the same compartment in which she kept her hallucinations.

Later, sorting through the inner compartments of her crashed capsule, she found the biological specimen box, and sobbed with relief. That box meant she wouldn’t die immediately, and when she eventually did, it wouldn’t be alone.

As they walked away from the shrine, Sarah asked Adam, “Do you think any of those old stories are true? How could a person breathe plastic?”

Adam shrugged. Outside, through a window, he could see smokestacks branching out from a Breath of Life factory. One of thousands of factories. Its chimneys outgassed day and night, releasing carbons back into the sky in a struggle to warm Mars. But it was a big planet, and the People of the Dragon were few. “I don’t know,” he told Sarah, “but it must be true, right? We have plastics, and the Breath of Life is a huge industry. It can’t all be made up.”

The Legend of the Clones:

Regan tried to focus on her work, oxidizing scrap copper to make crude solar cells, but her hands trembled and her vision swam too much for her to do anything useful. It had been too long since her last meal. She walked to the crater’s rim, studded now with buildings made of Martian brick and glass, all made airtight with big plastic sheets molded from dimethyl ether.

The mission had been to live on the surface and measure the effects it had on the human body. Regan laughed. Boy, did she have a story for them! But then she thought, oh yeah, Houston has had a problem. She briefly turned on her radio. Nothing but static.

This she used to gauge how much cosmic radiation was hitting her—the more static, the more radiation. She always visualized the white noise as looking like a snow flurry—huge, heavy snowflakes falling all around her. But snowflakes that could mutate her, like fallout of a nuclear winter. The hiss of radiation whispered to her from the edge of the universe, where the shock wave of the Big Bang was still traveling, still expanding. God had spoken the universe into existence, so that shock wave was the echo of his voice, still saying, “Let there be light.” What Regan heard were God’s caustic words, which would eventually kill her the longer she stood in their presence.

She went into a building and shucked her suit. One of the bio samples they’d brought to Mars was Pleurotus ostreatus mycelia, a strain already trained for mycoremediation, able to digest polyether plastics. Regan picked a few of the largest and ate her lunch.

Outside, protected by shade and preserved by the cold, were the other specimens Regan had found.

Sarah paid the vendor and took her mushroom sandwich over to where Adam stood in line. The idea of meat, the smell of it, always turned her stomach. “Have they started letting people in?” she asked.

“No,” said Adam. “The priest is telling the story of the virgin births. Again.”

The high priest was saying, “God told the Holy Mother the story of the komodo dragon, which swam great lengths through the ocean in order to colonize islands. But if a female dragon reached an island by herself, she would then have the God-given ability to lay fertilized eggs without the benefit of a male, and they would hatch male clones of the mother dragon, giving her a mating population with which to fill the island. Mars is an island, and our Queen a Dragon.”

Someone bumped into Sarah, nearly spilling her sandwich. It was Marco. “Watch it,” he sneered.

Adam pushed Marco back. “Go elsewhere, shithead.”

Marco’s face turned purple with anger. “I am a direct descendant of Regan Drake. Show proper respect.”

Adam laughed at him. “We’re all direct descendants of the queen.”

“Some of us more than others. I do the work of the church. At least I don’t act like a dirty Utahan like your father,” Marco said to Sarah.

She stiffened. Adam stepped between them. “You’ve overstayed your welcome.” He reached for Sarah, but she shook herself loose.

“Save my place in line, okay?” She took a deep breath. “I’m going for a walk.”

The priest’s voice continued: “After God’s words filled her, the Queen’s eggs moved to her womb, and she was impregnated. Thus were born Utah, Mojave, Phoenix, and Taos, the clone children of the Dragon.”

Regan held the body of her child, and mourned the waste of life. The waste of all the extra food that Regan had consumed during the pregnancy, the waste of all the time that she’d been unable to build while dust slowly coated the solar panels and food went unharvested.

Regan talked to the baby even now, out of sheer habit. This was Nevada, her first daughter, and mother spoke to child stories of angels who would take her to a bright warm place, a green garden with streams of diamond water, wholly unlike this planet, which had worked so quickly to snuff out this life with a combination of the gravity, the air, the dust, malnutrition, radiation, the cold, cold, cold. She wrapped the infant up, suited herself, and walked out of the squat brick building to the cave where her son lived.

Utah watched his mother come through the airlock, looked at the curious bundle in her arms. Regan squatted down to show him the dead child and to judge his reaction. There was frost on Nevada’s face.

“This is what happens to you if you go outside without a suit, understand?”

Utah nodded. Regan could already see the shape his face would take in adulthood. Features that would form into Captain Berg’s face. Berg, who had contributed, along with five other astronauts, to NASA’s program to study the effects of Martian conditions on human DNA. Regan had enough samples. She could use her body as the control, and maybe when she got back she could submit a paper on her findings. Utah moved to a deep corner of the cave to play with his garbage toys because he didn’t like listening to his mother when she wasn’t talking to him.

The soup she made that night tasted different, a warm-blood tinge like biting one’s tongue.

The Legend of Her Army:

All tunnels in the Divine City led, eventually, to Nativity Crater, where the first true natives of Mars had been born. At the crater’s rim, Sarah found a glass tunnel that ran out into the desert. It was, mercifully, sparsely populated because it was a restricted area. The guards recognized her and let her pass.

A pressure dome surrounded Cultural Significance Site #17 at the tunnel’s end, where a dozen people scurried like dust particles around a stoic line of giant red statues. Sarah approached one person and said, “Hi, Dad.”

Her father, head of the Cultural Significance Sites, looked up from his work and smiled. “Sarah! What are you doing here?” He put down his brushes and stood up. “By yourself? You know better than that. There are a lot of strange people in town for the Holy Week.”

Tell me about it, she thought, but said instead, “Come on, Dad, I’m six years old. Old enough to have babies. I can look out for myself.”

He accepted that. “Have you been to the tomb yet? It’s very important that you go.”

She shook her head. “Adam’s holding my place in line, though.”

“Ah, Adam. He’s a good man. Perhaps he’s the one you’re old enough to have babies with, hmm? His family’s line is far enough removed from ours—your babies would be healthy.” She rolled her eyes. Her father turned back to the red statues all around them and said, “Did you know that on Earth, Martians were thought to have green skin?”

Sarah frowned. “Why? For photosynthesis? Like the Queen? I heard she could do that, and dragons have green skin.”

“That’s clearly false. I mean, you can see the color of her skin and it’s no different than yours. It’s just a myth, started because she had the knowledge to draw energy from the Sun. The point is that the slightest difference in someone, like the color of skin, has always been used to fuel fear. Like the aliens that destroyed Earth. They have silver skin, so the priests say. Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Maybe they’re machines. Maybe they’re organic beings with metal exoskeletons. Who knows? Nobody knows. Possibly they have shiny skin in the stories because it’s so alien to this planet, where everything is dulled by dust. The priests could spread those stories to keep us afraid, and to stop us from wearing silver suits or building gleaming cities above the surface, where they could attract attention from another world.” He saw her look. “What is wrong?”

“Dad, do you really believe in the aliens? Someone called you a,” she flinched, “a Utahan.”

He took her hand, patted it while he thought of an answer. “I believe we came from somewhere, and that the stories have their seeds in fact. But people don’t like it when you take the magic out of their lives. Unfortunately, that is my job.” He gestured to all of Site 17. “Like the story of this place. Do you know it?”

Sarah looked at the giant statues. They were made of baked dirt, and stood in four rows. Their faces were turned up to different points of the pressure dome and, presumably, the sky beyond, but their features had been eroded by wind. “This is the Queen’s Mars cotta army. She used a 3D printer to make these soldiers out of the dirt. They watch the sky at all times, and will come to life ready to fight off any attack.”

“It’s a good story,” her father said. “But the truth is that these statues were made at least a hundred years after Regan Drake died and it’s unlikely that she even had 3D printers anyway. Whoever did make them was very skilled—see the angles of their faces? The statues are an astrological calendar. They’re tracking the movement of the Earth across the sky, throughout the year. So there’s still some magic left.”

They stood side-by-side for a while, admiring them. Her dad said, “Many of the stories we grow up with do serve a purpose. They teach us to accept certain behaviors: Incest, cannibalism, over-breeding, pollution. These were taboo on Earth, but they are the very things now that keep the human race alive.”

The Legend of Utah:

Sarah was nearly killed in the tunnels on the way back to the tomb. One moment she was following the crowd, the next, a young, skinny man stood above the crowd and shouted, “People! You are blind! Don’t be lied to any longer by priests who only want your money and obedience. The aliens are just a myth. If they were out there, they would have noticed our domed cities and all of our pollution. They would have attacked us years ago. Don’t be afraid of the delusions of a dead woman!”

That was too much for the crowd. They surged forward and Sarah was nearly crushed beneath them. The skinny man had disappeared and a priest seized the opportunity to stand on his own podium. He said, “Do not be shaken by what you have heard. Followers of the Utah heresy have been the cause of all trouble on Mars, since the time of the Dragon Queen. It was Utah’s separation from her that forced the Queen to call down fire from heaven and annihilate him. This introduced Mars to war, a curse from which we have never been free.”

Alala woke Regan that day. She was Taos’s daughter, a slim, pretty girl who came most often to listen to Regan’s stories. “Holy Mother, are you awake?”

Regan swung her feet to the ground. “I told you to stop calling me that,” she scolded. “What is it?”

“It’s Utah. He left with one of the rovers and a lot of the food. The others sent me to get you.”

Regan rested for a minute on the edge of her bed before pushing herself up. This wasn’t really news. Utah’s actions had been leading up to this for a while. Regan came to the large community room and looked at the tired faces. “Where is everyone?” Nearly half of the people were missing.

“They went with him,” someone said. Regan tallied them. Utah had left with his five children, the niece currently carrying his child, two of his nephews, and one grandchild.

“We can go after him ourselves,” Mojave offered. “There’s no need for you to over-exert yourself.”

Regan smiled. She knew that her early life in Earth gravity, her exposure to the harshest weather on Mars, and pure age made her seem like a crone to her daughters, who were fashioned by low-g, limited food, and youth into supermodel figures. But she was not so frail yet. “No. He is my son. I should be the one who does this.”

“But you can’t go out there alone!” her daughters protested.

No, she couldn’t. Not to confront eleven people. “Alala will go with me,” she decided.

They loaded up the other rover with what was needed, including a complicated folded contraption that Alala had never seen before. Utah’s tracks were easy to follow in the crust. Regan drove carefully, watching the horizon.

Regan switched on her rover’s radio. “This is your mother. Utah, I’m giving you a chance to come back, to bring back the children and the food. I don’t want to, but I will destroy you. I won’t allow you to split our group.”

Something puffed up dirt a few feet to their left. “What was that?” asked Alala in alarm.

“They’re shooting at us. Put your helmet on and lie on the floor.” In the limited air resistance, even a crude projectile like a rock would have enough velocity to punch completely through the rover. Fortunately, without rifling technology, Utah’s weapons were highly inaccurate. “Utah, send out the others. They don’t need to die with you.”

A second shot hit the top of the rover and rattled around a bit. Regan listened for the sound of escaping air, but the vehicle seemed undamaged. “Go away,” said Utah. “Go away and let us build our own lives.”

Regan carefully marked the signal strength and wheeled the rover a few minutes to their right. She spoke into the microphone. “You can’t build on the surface. You’ll attract the aliens to Mars. We are all that’s left, Utah, you can’t put the existence of humanity at risk for this.”

There was a moment of God speaking. Then Utah said, “There are no aliens! You made it all up out of guilt for murdering your crewmates!”

“Holy Mother,” Alala whispered from the floor, “what is he talking about?”

“This is why I didn’t bring more people with me,” said Regan. “Utah, how would you know anything about it?”

“God told me. I heard his voice on the radio. He said the war had reached every nation, and was tallying the dead. It sounded like the end of the world, but there was nothing about aliens, and his voice was human.”

“Holy Mother,” Alala whispered, “what is a war?”

She had the signal triangulated now, and was sketching out some trigonometry on a piece of plastic. To keep him talking, she said, “Everything I do is for a reason, and that reason is survival.” She wriggled into the back of the rover and wrenched at the springs on the folded equipment.

“You couldn’t save all of us, could you? You’ve buried your share of family. Maybe it’s time to let us find our own ways to survive, without having to live in constant fear of some threat in the sky.”

Regan paused in what she was doing. It was so long ago. Had the ship really been going down in flames before she pulled the lever and blew the hatch? Had the entire crew gone mad, watching their home planet burn, or was it just her?

“Doesn’t matter. There’s nothing to go back to, either way.” A piece of metal finally came off in her hand. The catapult on the back of the rover unfolded like a praying mantis standing up, and threw a gleaming glass barrel high and far. It hung in the sky like a star, then plummeted down beyond the horizon. Utah was still talking when the barrel struck his rover. The methanol and oxygen in the bomb mixed and exploded. Alala sat up to watch the fireball. She was silent. The radio was silent.

Someone was coming towards them, stumbling along in a pressure suit. Regan recognized the Utah’s pregnant niece, carrying a long-barreled weapon. The niece dropped the gun, shock visible on her face. “Were you the only one not in the rover?” Regan asked.

The woman nodded and stared at the destruction until Regan turned her rover around and headed back.

The Legend of Her Passing:

Adam said, “Oh my God, what happened to your face?”

Sarah touched her bruises. “Utahans, in one of the corridors. I’ll be fine.” They reached the front of the line where a panoramic window separated the pilgrims from the airgap to the Dragon Queen’s tomb. Sarah and Adam paid the extra bits to rent a pair of sour-smelling pressure suits from the priests at the airlock, so they could trudge right up to the glass coffin.

Her skin was not green. “Look at how small she is,” said Sarah, over her radio. “I thought she would be so much taller.” But the thing that caught her attention the most was the thick moat of green algae that carpeted the area around Regan Drake’s tomb. She had never seen so much plant life in one spot before, and not out in the open. It was true, then, what the tour guides said about the Queen’s final moments:

“After single-handedly bringing life to Mars, the Holy Queen laid down her own life and slept. When she did, her body burst open and released a lush garden of plants, which still spread across the face of the planet, and will one day lock hands together on the other side of the world. And Mars will be green.”

Alala stood at Regan’s deathbed. In her hands she held the last completed book, the final collection of the Dragon Queen’s stories and knowledge. After the fight with Utah, Drake had sat in her room, saying very little. She gradually refused food, letting the others take her rations until the day she lay down, and slept.

Four great-grandchildren came in to take the body away. The Holy Mother had loved green plants; her fondest memories and most passionate stories were always about jungles, forests, and gardens back on Earth, so Alala built a special greenhouse that would serve as the Dragon Queen’s mausoleum, out beyond the edge of the crater. The Queen’s casket was set gently down on a bed of algae and the door was sealed shut.

Within Alala’s books were instructions from Regan to create many factories that would send up gouts of carbon into the air, slowly heating the planet. The ice caps would melt; water would flow down through empty riverbeds again. When the heat and pressure were high enough, the Queen’s greenhouse could be cracked open like an egg, and plants would crawl free of their glass containers.

Before their five minutes of air was up, Sarah tilted her head back, remembering the angle of the clay army’s gaze, and found a blue dot in the thin sky. Focused on it, waiting for God to say something, if he was even up there. If anyone was.

A human voice suddenly filled her ear, and she startled, before realizing it was only Adam, reading the plaque at their feet.

The Legend of Her Return:

“Here our Holy Mother, Regan Drake the Dragon Queen, rests—not in death—but in sleep, ready to rise again to defend Mars in its time of need. She imparted upon us all that we may know of perseverance, loyalty, courage, family, honor, and survival, so that when the vile inhuman threat descends upon yet another of humanity’s planets and seeks to finish its eradication of our species, we shall be ready.”